Commentary

Two Cheers for The Washington Post Fact Check on Maternal Mortality Rates

Michael New
By Michael New | May 28, 2019 | 3:01 PM EDT

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On Tuesday, The Washington Post published an informative fact check regarding maternal mortality trends in Texas. At a House Ways and Means Committee hearing May 16th Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) claimed that the reported rate of maternal deaths in Texas doubled after funding cuts to Planned Parenthood.  Unfortunately, as The Washington Post pointed out, Congressman Beyer was relying on incorrect data. While a 2016 study did report a large increase in the incidence of maternal mortality in Texas, a subsequent study – using corrected data – found that the maternal mortality rate was less than half of what was previously reported.

Many people acted commendably. When Congressman Beyer’s office was contacted, he admitted the error and his communications director called it “an honest mistake.” The American Medical Association asked the House Ways and Means Committee to correct the record in their official testimony. Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post fact checker, was thorough in his reporting.  He provided some good background about the 2016 Obstetrics and Gynecology study which originally reported an increase in maternal mortality in Texas, the task force which examined these findings, and the corrected data which was published in in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2018.

That said, the whole situation is still frustrating for pro-lifers. The 2016 Obstetrics and Gynecology study, which purportedly found a sharp increase in maternal mortality in Texas, received plenty of mainstream media coverage. This is despite the link between the reported increase in maternal mortality and the funding cuts to Planned Parenthood was never well established. The authors were guarded about their findings and the increase in the reported Texas maternal mortality rate took place before the funding cuts to Planned Parenthood took effect.  Finally, the corrected data which appeared in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2018, received considerably less media coverage than the original study.

Additionally, even though The Washington Post fact checker did a commendable job setting the record straight regarding maternal mortality rates in Texas, there is still a considerable amount of misinformation circulating about other Texas public health trends. Ever since Texas defunded Planned Parenthood in 2011, the mainstream media has worked overtime to find evidence of a public health crisis. Unfortunately, much of the subsequent reporting has produced more heat than light.

In particular, many media outlets have worked overtime to try to make the case that there has been a significant increase in the unintended pregnancy rate in Texas. However, the data does not back this up. Between 2011 and 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, minor pregnancies have gone down by 33 percent, minor births have gone down by 30 percent, and abortions performed on minors have gone down by 48 percent. Overall, the state abortion rate has fallen by over 26 percent and the state birthrate has remained virtually unchanged.  As such, it is hard to argue that the unintended pregnancy rate increased in Texas after Planned Parenthood was defunded.

So how has the media tried to make the case that the unintended pregnancy rate increased in Texas?  In some cases, prominent people have simply fabricated statistics. In September 2015, New York Times columnist Gail Collins cited George Washington University law professor Sara Rosenbaum as her source for a claim that unintended pregnancies were rising in Texas. However, while Rosenbaum wrote an analysis predicting an increase in the unintended pregnancy rate, she provided no hard data which indicated an actual increase in the unintended pregnancy rate.

In other cases, the media has aggressively spun research findings. A 2016 The New England Journal of Medicine study showed a sharp increase in Medicaid-funded births in a select group of Texas counties. However, a closer look at the findings indicated that only 37 additional women had Medicaid-funded births. Similarly, a 2017 Journal of Health Economics study argued that because of Planned Parenthood funding cuts, counties outside of Texas were experiencing larger teen pregnancy declines than counties in Texas. However, readers of the subsequent media coverage were led to believe that there was an overall increase in the Texas teen pregnancy rate.  However, Texas public health data clearly shows that is not the case.

In fairness, some of these studies put journalists and fact checkers in a difficult position. It is certainly possible that the 2016 New England Journal of Medicine study and the 2017 Journal of Health Economics study did not contain any factual errors. That said, the reporting on both of these studies contributed to a misleading narrative that funding cuts to Planned Parenthood have resulted in an overall increase in unintended pregnancies in Texas. It would great if fact checkers from The Washington Post would show the same amount of diligence covering trends in the unintended pregnancy rate and other public health data as they did covering recent trends in maternal mortality rates.

Michael J. New is a Visiting Assistant Professor at The Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.

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